Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

At ACF's annual conference in November, a straw poll of delegates revealed that a majority were either undertaking or considering work that they broadly characterised as advocacy. In this series, we are speaking to members about how and why they promote greater representation to policy and decision-makers.

The third article in this series comes from Andrew Barnett, Director of Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK Branch.

This series first appeared in April 2018's Trust & Foundation News. Read the magazine here.

The question for us at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is where we sit on the spectrum of advocacy – whether you call it that or campaigning or policy influencing. Foundations have many different options: we can support others or do it ourselves, we can open doors or advocate specific policy positions, we can address different audiences and do so in different ways. For us, it depends on what we are working on at the time and the context.

In the UK, we are just a small part (less than 3%) of a foundation headquartered in Portugal. And though we’ve engaged in advocacy throughout our 62-year history, we’re conscious that we are a European entity and not strictly a UK one. So, we have to be careful not to be criticised for lacking legitimacy.

We work with partners – what some call grantees – to define the ‘change objectives’ we want to see. We fund in cohorts and connect the organisations in learning communities or help develop coalitions. We spend about a third as much again internally – on our team and building – as we do on grants, which shows the value we place on using all our assets including on convening, supporting our partners and communicating.

And our collective efforts are targeted on wherever the change we seek can best be brought about. This is usually a combination of influencing frontline practice – perhaps by supporting the piloting of new ways of doing things and their spreading – but also at the level of government policy: policy informed by practice, not the other way around. Increasingly, we take what some call a ‘systems approach’, seeing funders, practitioners, policy-makers and others as part of an ecology, with government being one of many audiences.

Look at the recent successes achieved in persuading government to want to act against plastic waste in the ocean. This has been won by a wide range of organisations increasingly working together. One part of this has been the #OneLess campaign, which we are supporting with the Oak Foundation, aimed at banning single-use plastic bottles in London. The idea came from the Marine CoLABoration we set up with nine NGOs in 2016. But it’s not us doing the campaigning or the talking to government – although we back the cause totally. It is the change we want to see that drives our advocacy work, but when government is the audience, there’s a question as to who is the best messenger – our partners or ourselves. The answer is that it can be both, although primarily we see ourselves as a convenor, an opener of doors, sometimes an amplifier, and an occasional purveyor of private advice, but always based on what we see from the work.

It’s also about how the case is put. For example, we commissioned research from the Framework Institute to look at how best to frame the issues in marine protection. We are using their findings to equip the NGO sector with messages that are likely to cut through with a policy audience. Another example is the work on promoting arts organisations’ civic role, exploring how they can maintain their relevance in a changing world. We decided to begin with an ‘inquiry’ not a programme of work. We engaged the sector and our first report was for consultation rather than with specific recommendations.

We are also funding Client Earth’s Brexit lawyer to put the environmental case in the new Fisheries Bill. We do not have the detailed expertise within the foundation, and are instead much better placed to fund a lawyer in an organisation with a strong track record of using the law to influence environmental protection.

Tone is also important – it should never be sensational or shrill. We need to protect the independence which we think affords us access to government because we are trusted, and avoid the risk of people seeing us as a foreign entity interfering in British politics. That’s why we don’t tend to push a very particular policy ask of government. Rather, we prefer to provide a platform to push a wider agenda, lend our weight to a cause but retain a level of independence and flexibility.

A lot of civil servants have their minds on Brexit right now and therefore the capacity for evidence-based thinking, drawing on the experience of the charitable and voluntary sector and feeding it into government, is something they could benefit from.

Andrew Barnett
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK Branch


Other articles in this series

Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Trust for London 
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Millfield House Foundation   
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Community Foundation for Northern Ireland 
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: The Robertson Trust 
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust 

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